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Harvard prof saw danger of dysfunctional 'meritocracy' in affirmative action case

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SCOTUS affirmative action case
Bill Powers (C), president of the University of Texas at Austin, spoke to the media after attending arguments at the U.S. Supreme Court last October.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to make a decision on the constitutionality of affirmative action at public colleges. Abigail Fisher, a white student, had sued after she was denied admission to the University of Texas. She is claiming the rejection was racial discrimination.

In an opinion written by Justice Anthony Kennedy, the court said that a federal appeals court must give the university's admissions policy a closer look. Questions surrounding the policy remain unresolved.

Natasha Kumar Warikoo, an assistant professor at Harvard Graduate School of Education, wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times last week about merit-based admissions:

More than 50 years ago, British sociologist Michael Young coined the term "meritocracy." He intended the term to have negative connotations, referring to a dystopia in which the elite use notions of merit to justify and maintain their status across generations. He portrayed a future in which promotion, pay and school admissions would be used to reward elites for their class-based cultural know-how rather than for qualities attainable by anyone in society.

If the Supreme Court ruling in the Fisher case bans the consideration of factors that promote racial equality and justice in admissions decisions, but allows universities to continue considering other kinds of non-academic "merit" that increase inequality, we will be one step closer to the kind of dysfunctional "meritocracy" Young envisioned.